TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The U.S. mission to Bosnia has encountered its first enemy, and it is neither Serb, Croat nor Muslim. The enemy is winter, blocking military cargo flights with fog and clogging roads with deep snow.
Weather forced the cancellation yesterday of 20 flights by aircraft carrying soldiers and equipment. Only two aircraft even tried to land, but they were turned back after groping for the runway at Tuzla's snowbound airfield. No plane has landed since Wednesday.
But with more worrisome challenges ahead for the year-long NATO peacekeeping mission, U.S. military officials say they're not worried by the prospect of a few initial delays.
"This entire deployment is a very deliberate, precise movement," said U.S. Army Col. Bob Gaylord, "and there is absolutely no reason to rush things and put people at risk."
Or as Sgt. Hank Minitrez put it while standing on the airfield tarmac:
"The last thing they need is for some hotshot pilot to say, 'I can fly in anything,' and then crash the plane. The whole world is watching this operation."
Forces traveling here by train and truck from Germany are still on schedule, Army officials said.
To build bridge
As early as Wednesday, an engineering unit is to begin building a pontoon bridge across the Sava River, to create a new link connecting Croatia to Bosnia.
Only then will U.S. troops begin moving into Bosnia in significant numbers, reaching an eventual 20,000.
Once the weather improves, the Army may add night flights to take care of the growing backlog of soldiers and materiel. The military has also begun plotting alternate road routes in case more snow falls.
Two feet of snow fell on Tuzla last week. Most major roads are now plowed, but more snow is expected soon. And thick fog is forecast to linger a while longer. It is all the more frustrating because mountain valleys 30 miles away were awash in sunshine yesterday.
The postponed flights were to have carried heavy equipment -- much of it for communications -- plus several hundred soldiers and at least one general, officials said.
TV anchormen affected
The flights yesterday were also supposed to continue the Army's shuttle of anchormen for American TV networks.
About 1,000 other reporters, photographers and technicians have already arrived and for now are the third largest occupying force in Bosnia, behind the British and French military contingents.
News services and TV networks have built huge camera platforms outside the Tuzla air base, where they loom in the fog like medieval siege weapons.
But with the weather delaying the first wave of troops, the journalists have been left to report such highlights as the building of latrines.
"We actually had the largest contingent of media on the bus that we've had all week, just to see that," said a marveling Sergeant Minitrez.
The result was that Col. Neal Patton attracted a crowd of more than 50 when he walked onto a muddy parking lot to summarize the day's nonarrivals.
He then spent the next 15 minutes doggedly refusing to admit that the Army was even behind schedule in its deployment.
"A plan is simply something that you deviate from," he said, citing the old advice of one of his generals.